After a pause for politics, she feels fresh

LET US NOT SUGGEST ACTRESS Mary Steenburgen's living room isn't cozy. It is. There's a plump, white sofa; a piano; soccer trophies won by her children Lilly, 13, and Charlie, 11; a few eye-catching ornaments—like the Oscar that Steenburgen won as Best Supporting Actress in 1980's Melvin and Howard—and photos of the native Arkansan with her close pals Bill and Hillary Clinton.

Yet something about the room impels the visitor doorward. Something more than the swimming pool and sunflowers just outside Steenburgen's cottage in Santa Barbara, Calif. It's Lucy, her 7-year-old mongrel, who has, well...a gas problem. This animal can clear a room faster than a screening of The Flintstones. But when the pup erupts, her owner merely giggles, crying, "It's Mary Steenburgen and her amazing farting dog!"

Just now, Lucy may be the only aspect of Steenburgen's life that isn't coming up roses. Her career fairly reeks of success, following her widely praised portrayal of the tough lawyer opposing Tom Hanks in Philadelphia. She's now a smash with L.A. theater audiences in the dark comedy Marvin's Room. And this month will see the premiere of her new film, the offbeat comedy Pontiac Moon. If Pontiac doesn't, as Hollywooders say, find an audience, that's no big deal. While making the movie last fall, Steenburgen found romance with costar Ted Danson. "I'm having a really nice time now," she says. "I like my world better and the choices I've made. I feel sexier."

It shows. At 41, Steenburgen glows with the same peachy delicacy that prompted Jack Nicholson to cast the unknown actress in his quirky 1978 western Goin' South. Her radiance is all the more remarkable because, not long ago, Steenburgen was at a very low point.

In 1989 her adored father, Maurice, a freight-train conductor back in North Little Rock, Ark., died of lung cancer at 74. That same year, her 10-year marriage to British actor Malcolm McDowell ended in divorce. Her films of that period, such as The Butcher's Wife, were duds. "There were a lot of lost years," she reflects. "There was so much I was trying to cope with in life."

Around that time, Steenburgen decided to work in Bill Clinton's presidential campaign. (She has been friends with the family since they met at a dinner in 1979.) After a year of giving speeches at rallies and interviews about the Clintons, she returned to her career. Seeing how the Clintons endured criticism, she says, gave her a new outlook: "I learned not to care what other people think."

But those closest to Steenburgen believe there is another important difference. Says her sister Nancy Kelley, 37, a first-grade teacher in North Little Rock: "The biggest change I've seen is that she has found a soul mate."

Danson and Steenburgen had met on occasion in Los Angeles over the years but had never worked together until director Peter Medak tapped them for Pontiac Moon, the story of an eccentric car collector who tries to lure his wife, an agoraphobe, outside their home for the first time in seven years. Medak thinks he saw romance blooming as soon as work began. When the two met with him to discuss the script in the fall of 1993, he says, "the chemistry was there totally."

As actors say, it's all in the timing. Steenburgen says that both her marriage to McDowell and the breakup were contentious. By the time she met Danson, she says, "I wanted a relationship like the one my mother and father had. It wasn't perfect; they had to work on it. But there was an unbelievable mutual respect." Danson, through his well-chronicled experiences with divorce from his wife, Casey, in 1993, and his well-publicized fling with Whoopi Goldberg, has gained perspective, he says, about what matters in a relationship. "I think Mary and I both did a lot of homework."

The two don't spare the superlatives when they discuss each other. Danson on Steenburgen: "A beautiful, sensuous woman. She has a great, dirty laugh. I'm madly in love with her. I can't tell you how wonderful it is to be 46 and discover that life is mysterious."

Steenburgen on Danson: "He is the most wonderful person I have ever met. He is astounding and magical. He's the nicest thing that ever happened to me in my whole life, except for my children. We are obsessed, actually."

Steenburgen's pals weren't terribly enthusiastic about the matchup at first. At a White House dinner last spring, Danson says, Clinton drew him aside to warn him not to hurt Steenburgen. "You can't be more threatened than by the President of the United States," he says. "But I understand. I'm responsible for my past, so I deserve to be watched."

Steenburgen denies reports that the two will wed in December. But they did recently buy a house together on Martha's Vineyard, which Steenburgen seems to see as part of a joint future. "It's wonderful. We can use the house in the winter, for Thanksgiving and Christmas. We can skate on the pond," she says, trailing off dreamily.

Steenburgen has always been a bit starry-eyed. When she was young, her father suffered five heart attacks, and Mary felt she had to be extra good—and extra quiet. She took refuge in books and daydreams. Sister Nancy recalls how far Mary's imagination could fly. During an open house at a Little Rock mansion, Mary stood at the top of a staircase, imagining herself as a southern belle. "She started making this grand walk down, like Scarlett O'Hara," says Nancy. "She was so into her daydream, she missed a step and fell on her bottom all the way down."

Steenburgen still calls her mother, Nell, 71, a retired school-board secretary, at least twice a week for advice. Her childlike quality, peers suggest, is what gives Steenburgen her acting range. "She has such a willingness to be vulnerable," says actress Laura Dern, who directed Steenburgen in last month's Showtime short The Gift. "But she's a wild thing at heart."

An apparently serene wild thing. "I've learned in the last few years how not to worry," she says. "I think getting older—and getting bored with myself—helped. I learned so much about life and other human beings—then about myself. And now Ted. I feel blessed."

GREGORY CERIO
VICKI SHEFF-CAHAN in Santa Barbara

  • Contributors:
  • Vicki Sheff-Cahan.